The air-cooled Bug is a hoot to drive, cheap to own and full of retro charm and character. But how do you go about buying the best? We have all the answers…
It’s no coincidence the Beetle was called the ‘people’s car’ because during its eight decade production lifespan it’s remained one of the most loved vehicles on the road. As it’s enjoyed such a long and glorious history, the hard bit is generalising about the various models; obviously there’s a big difference between a split rear window Beetle from the early 1950s and a rounded screen McPherson strut 1303 Super Beetle made two decades later. That said, the basic ethos was the same – in other words, an air-cooled engine in the back powering the rear wheels, a platform chassis, bolt on wings and that wonderfully distinctive classic bug-like shape.
Beetles from the 1950s and early ‘60s will always feel a tad agricultural compared to later models, but owners will argue that’s all part of their charm. The 1300cc and, in particular, the 1500cc from 1966 and ’67 respectively were a big step on from the flaccid 1200cc in terms of overall driveability. The switch from torsion bars to McPherson struts initially on the flat windscreen 1302 in 1971 also made a big difference, as did the arrival of the Super Beetle with its rounded screen and curvy plastic dash two years later. Which you choose is up to you. There’s no getting away from the charm of the metal dash, flat screen models (which continued in production alongside the more modern models right through until the very last Mexican Beetles in 2003), and they’re much firmer with less body roll than the heavier, McPherson equipped Bugs.
But as far as creature comforts, ride quality and forward visibility goes things undeniably got better with time and the 1303 with 1600cc engine, higher top gear and disc brakes at the front will feel much more at ease in modern traffic. The great thing about any era of Beetle is that as you move through the wonderfully precise gearbox it will still feel surprisingly eager and, given the right conditions, will happily cruise at motorway speeds without too much drama, even if speed does tail off up the hills! There was a semi-automatic which scores for its rarity, but isn’t particularly nice to drive.
Air-cooled VW engines are an engineering work of art with beautifully finned horizontally opposed aluminium cylinder heads cooled, naturally, by air forced over them within an enclosed fan housing. Its lifeblood is a plentiful supply of fresh engine oil, itself cooled by its own cooler located within the fan housing. Hence why regular oil changes, as frequently as every 3000 miles, using a top quality 15w40 multi grade or SAE30 mineral oil which plays a key role in keeping everything running sweetly.
It takes 2.5-litres, and be careful not to sheer off the delicate 10mm bolts holding the metal filter plate. Very early models, up to 1960 are 25/30hp, they can be identified by their integral dynamo stand. The later models have a bolt on stand, seperate to the case. Incidentally the engine number is located just below this.
In truth, many of the Beetle’s worst engine woes result from overheating, so it’s important to ensure that everything is set up properly; the fanbelt’s not slipping, the ignition timing is spot on and nothing’s restricting the fan (such as the firewall at the back of the engine bay!). Worn or incorrectly adjusted carbs and leaks from the twin port inlet manifold rubbers which can cause the engine to run lean will also make the engine run hotter than it should (cylinder no.3 will be the one that cooks first).
A compression test provides a good indication of general health – you should expect 100psi on all four cylinders and between 110-120psi on a fresh engine.
Another good indication of a worn engine is the amount of end float in the rear main bearing – you can check by tugging the bottom pulley to see if there’s excess play. If there’s too much, you’ll need either a rebuild or replacement engine. Other issues include cracked cylinder heads which leads to loss of compression, oil leaks form the pushrod tube seals, flywheel oil seal and worn valve guides resulting in blue smoke on start up.
Gearboxes are precise and usually pretty robust, although loss of synchromesh can spoil things. Obviously replacing the clutch plate is an engine out job. The Beetle features two types of front suspension; torsion bar (initially king and link pin up until August 1965, thereafter more modern balljoints) and MacPherson strut on the 1302 and 1303 models. At the rear there is a swing axle which pivot from the gearbox, and on 1302, 1303 and semi-auto models, a completely different independent arrangement with CV joints next to the gearbox and hub at the end of the axle. The torsion bars feature grease nipples, so maintenance is pretty straightforward, although when early king pins wear it’s an MoT failure and replacement requires specialist tooling. On MacPherson strut arrangements, check the top mount for wear as well as the condition of all the tie rod rubbers.
Beetles employ a worm and roller steering box (access is gained through an inspection hole under the bonnet) and adjustment can be made to the roller by backing off the locknut and turning the adjusting screw slowly clockwise until the play disappears. If you overtighten, the car will be reluctant to return to centre. Again, there’s all manner of ways to upgrade a Bug’s suspension, it all depends on the model you choose. For beam axle cars you can keep it stock, or go for “the look” by lowering it. The front can be adjusted in height on the front axle with the addition of weld in adjusters, or buying a ready done beam. Alternatively, or in combination with an adjustable beam you can fit “Dropped Spindles” this will move the wheels higher up into the arches, effectivley lowering the ride height, but more importantly keeping stock suspension travel for optimum comfort.
Narrowing the front axle is also common, this gives a “tucked in” look to the front, but can make the steering more skittish, and it plays havoc with the turning circle! For 1302/3 models lowering springs and shorter shocks will bring your bug nearer to the ground, and these cars handle much more like a modern vehicle. Out back, the torsion arms can be removed and replaced a spline or two further round, dropping the back of the car around 2.5” per spline. Adjustable spring plates can be fitted for maximum adjustment. For those wanting to go to extremes Air Ride or Hydraulics can be fitted with a fair bit of work. Beetle brakes can be good if properly adjusted, and the option of discs at the front in 1967 helped. Leaky wheel cylinders and rusty brakelines are commonplace, so often it’s wise to renew the whole system. Either way, removing the drums and freeing off all the adjusters will make future maintenance easier. This is especially important if you have recommisioned a car after a long time off the road.
Early Beetle (up to ‘67) electrics were 6V, which is fine if all the earths are good and you don’t do much night time driving! A 12v conversion is common, and pretty simple if you want practicality over originality. The charging system changed from dynamo to alternator in 1971, however alternators can be retrospectivley fitted to all but the very early 25/30 hp motors.
Corrosion is probably the biggest threat to a Bug’s survival. Corrosion can and does attack anywhere and everywhere – the only positive being that you can buy replacement panels and repair sections for just about everywhere that’s likely to be affected.
The worst areas include heater channels which run the length of the car (if the running boards are hanging off, this could be why), the spare wheel well, the bumper hangers front and rear, door bottoms, wing edges, boot and bonnet seams (and lips) and the rear quarter panels. The car’s platform chassis can also rust badly, especially in the front footwells, in the rear where the battery sits, and where it sweeps over the rear axle. The viability of a rotten car will depend on your wallet or welding skills – as we’ve said, everything’s available – including complete replacement floorpans – you just need to ask yourself whether the time and effort would be better spent on a more sound car in the first place.
The wings bolt directly into the inner wing and you should expect to have at least a couple of bolts sheer off when attempting to undo them, although a thorough soaking in release agent will reduce such risks. Replacement wing beading is available in a variety of colours to finish things off. Fitting new bumpers can instantly transform the look of a Beetle, and the US ‘towel rail’ type are a particularly popular retro fit. However, make sure you secure them with the appropriate support tubes that go through the wings. All the body rubbers are still available, as are accessories such as bra kits, roofracks, locks, handles, and glass.
Sparse but well finished Beetle interiors usually last well. However, the seats are likely to have either sagged badly or split by now, so some remedial work may be necessary. The good news is that, yet again, everything is available so you could soon be having your interior looking like new. From seat padding to complete seat cover sets, there’s no limit to what you can do – and even the original basket weave patterns are available.
To finish the job off properly, get hold of a good quality carpet set. The hood on the convertible Beetle is a complex affair with a folding metal frame, horsehair padding, headlining and a glass rear window which even featured a heated element on later models. Properly fitted with fresh rubber seals (all still available), the whole affair is virtually water tight and creates minimal wind noise. However the hood often shrinks with age, allowing water into the car where it can rot out the floorpan – so putting off buying a replacement is a false economy.
With the hood folded down, don’t forget to engage the two frame clips each side to prevent vibration – and always fit the hood bag if you have one to prevent the headlining getting dirty. Replacement headliners, padding and outer skins are all still available, but fitting is probably best left to a specialist.
Be wary of cabriolet Beetles that have been converted. They may not of been strengthened effectively, and they command a much lower price than the Karmann originals. The “15” chassis number is a dead giveaway if you are uncertain. Also watch out for missing parts on early vehicles (1950 / 1960’s especially) as they can be costly and tricky to source to get your new car back up to scratch.
1935– First prototypes produced
1945– Post-war production begins with the first 1,785 Beetles (Type 1) made in a factory near Wolfsburg Germany
1950– First Cabriolet Beetle produced at Karmann’s Osnabruck factory
1953– Split rear window replaced by an oval rear screen, engine capacity grew to 1192cc from 25bhp 1131cc. First Beetle sold in the UK
1958– Oval rear window replaced by larger rear screen
1964– ‘Pope’s nose’ number plate light replaced by a wider unit, introduction of deeper side windows and windscreen
1966– King and Link Pin front axle switched for Ball joint type, 1285cc engine appears, badged ‘1300’
1967– “Wide five” 5/205 pcd wheels are replaced by 4/130 pcd, the hub caps change from a domed to a flatter type and disc brakes are offered on some models. True 1967 examples (Aug 66-July 67 built) feature one year only door handles and hubcaps to name a few one offs and are considered a holy grail by some - US ‘67 models even more so! Check that chassis number, but be prepared for a premium and lack of availablity on new ‘67 specific parts
1968– Squarer Europa style bumpers replace rounded chrome blades, bigger rear lights are fitted and a semi-auto ‘Stick Shift’ made available with 1500cc engine
1971– 1302 introduced with 1584cc engine and McPherson strut front suspension and independent rear suspension, allowing the spare wheel to be stowed flat under the bulbous bonnet
1973– 1303 or Super Beetle launched with same McPherson strut and IRS arrangement, but curved screen and plastic facia, different wings and round rear light lenses
1978– Production finishes in Germany and switches to Brazil and Mexico
1980– Last Cabriolet built in January (for the US market)
2003– Last Beetle rolls off the production line in Puebla, Mexico. The final batch of 4,000 Beetles were sold as 2004 models, badged as the Última Edición with whitewall tyres and chrome trim
|YEARS||1957 - 2003||1966 - 1967||1967 - 1970||1971 - 1975|
|ENGINE||1192cc Flat 4||1285cc Flat 4||1493cc Flat 4||1584cc Flat 4|
|0-60mph||32.1 seconds||-||-||18.3 seconds|
|SUSPENSION||Independent torsion bar front and rear||MacPherson front strut, coil spring, semi swing axle torsion bar.|
Beetle values have been on the up over the last couple of years, mainly due to the rocketing price of VW vans and people are choosing the Beetle to get into the air-cooled scene.
The least sought after models are the curved screen 1303s and the late ‘70s cars, which start at around £1500 for an MoT’d example, but values for late ‘50s and early ‘60s cars are still high and people are still searching for sound, original cars and importing rust free ones from all over the world, including the States, Sweden and Norway. A solid early car needing restoration could be worth as much as £3,000.
The best candidates for long-term ownership are cars that haven’t been played around with, and certainly don’t rule out buying a left-hooker – or a 1200 because they tend to be the most reliable.
Good, sorted Beetles will always hold value. As a guide, an early sloping headlamp ‘60s car could be worth as much as £7,500, while a sound late upright headlamp car will still fetch £2,500-£3,000. Convertibles usually command at least a £1,000 premium over their tin-top counterparts.
Mexican Beetles don’t hold quite the same kudos as genuine German Bugs, and this is usually reflected in lower values.
The Beetle makes an excellent everyday classic and if properly sorted, it’s surprisingly nice to drive, cheap to run and still incredibly reliable. Moreover, even the 1200 will make a good fist of keeping up with modern day traffic. The best cars to buy are those that have remained unmolested, or else ones that have undergone a proper restoration as opposed to being bodged.
Take your time, buy the best and you really won’t go wrong. The fact that you can buy just about everything to bring a project car back to good health, including trim and panels, means you can easily do all the work yourself. Once it’s in fine fettle, service items and parts to make a Beetle run and look even better are also in plentiful supply, so the love affair is likely to be long lasting.